Lot 26

RICHARD COSWAY (1742-1821)

Portrait miniature of a Gentleman, wearing a blue coat, white jabot and powdered hair en queue, c. 1785

Watercolour on ivory

Contemporary gold frame with seed pearl border, the reverse with bright-cut engraved border, the reverse glazed to reveal paper

Oval, 1.7in (42mm) high


Sotheby’s, 16 January 1990, lot 512;

European Private Collection

Cosway was one of the leading portrait miniature painters of the eighteenth century, who, along with a handful of competitors, fed the hunger for the virtuoso grandeur which so typified the Regency period.

Born in Devon, the son of a headmaster was attracted to art from an early age and by the age of twelve was working in London under Thomas Hudson and learning at Shipley’s drawing school. Cosway first exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1760 and entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1769, exhibiting there 1770-1806. Cosway was made Miniature Painter to the Prince of Wales in around 1786, a position he maintained until the Prince became Regent in 1811.

Perhaps the most characteristic feature of Cosway’s work is the captivating level of luminosity he manages to create. Throughout his career Cosway mastered the use of transparent pigments, which when applied diligently onto ivory exploited the natural glow of the support, as seen in the present work. Another distinguishable feature of Cosway’s work is the sky background, which was exemplified by Cosway and later adopted by competitors such as Andrew Plimer (1763-1837), who, along with brother Nathaniel, Cosway taught to paint.

The present work dates to circa 1785 and was painted at a time when Cosway very much dominated the market for portrait miniatures. He developed a technique, seen clearly here, which contrasted delicate stipple work in the face with more fluent, expressive brushwork in the body and background. Other techniques include ‘floating’ his watercolour pigments on the pale ivory surface he allowed the luminous transparency of the material to suggest the natural glow of light. Here he has left much of the ivory behind the sitter’s head bare.

This lot is subject to CITES regulations.

Estimate: £1,000-£1,500